MTV, once the network of choice for young people, is in a rut. Ratings slipped five percent last year, advertising revenues were down three percent, and viewership for last summer’s Video Music Awards dropped 18 percent. The channel’s parent company, Viacom, just laid off several top executives — including producer and 28-year veteran Dave Sirulnick, who was one of MTV’s last ties to its golden age. “Some of the programming we acquired years ago just doesn’t work anymore,” Viacom’s chief executive, Philippe Dauman, told investors, announcing a plan to save $250 million.
MTV’s problems begin with its content — Teen Mom and Ridiculousness pull in 1 million to 2 million viewers per episode, but hardly overwhelm pop culture the way Jackass and Jersey Shore did. (A rep says ratings have dropped because “live television viewing is down, and young audiences are leading that trend.”) More problematically, MTV has struggled to adjust to the digital era. Some shows are available free via MTV.com and on its mobile app; others are delayed for a month and sold on iTunes. “People aren’t sure how to watch the [shows],” says a source close to the channel. “They’re cutting the cable left and right, and it’s not available by streaming.”
MTV still airs videos most mornings, but vastly more viewers get their music clips from sites like YouTube and Vimeo. “Has MTV done an unbelievable job of being on that [digital] wave? Not so sure,” adds Les Garland, who co-founded the channel and spent years as a senior VP. “If I were to admit my habits, I go to YouTube like everyone else.”